ROBINSON’S GERMAN JOURNEY: DAY THREE
FRIDAY 23 MARCH 2012
AMSTERDAM TO BERLIN
Walking out of Berlin’s central station - its Hauptbahnhof - is like walking from one man’s vision of paradise to another’s vision of purgatory.
It’s the kind of supersonic, glass-and-steel concoction normally dreamed up for Doctor Who. Because trains arrive and leave on five different levels, escalators disappear up and down from the enormous central glass atrium into which the Angel of the North would fit at least three times - and all directions.
The atrium and passageways are lined with light and activity; shops, cafés, information and help desks. It is of airport dimensions but, importantly, without the accompanying stress and impersonality. You can get where you need to be quickly and in style - and without being herded, harassed, hindered or otherwise harrumphed.
And it’s just as flash from outside. It’s the 21st-century version of a mediaeval castle gateway. Two glass towers rise on each side of the ‘barbican’ canopy - multicoloured lasers are beamed out from their tops across the city every night.
All in all, I thought to myself as I looked at it, an impressive example of Berlin’s post-wall rebirth and of Germany’s ongoing determination to - as it were - ‘rise from the ashes’.
Then I turned round.
When I think about this moment with the benefit of hindsight, I partially ascribe my plummeting emotions to psychology. My researches, and many of the people I’d spoken to, had waxed enthusiastically and voluminously about the wonders of Berlin. Its skyline, its monuments and buildings, its people and its atmosphere. I suspect that, after the interesting and exciting journey I’d just had from Amsterdam, I was fully expecting to step out into an urban version of the Elysian fields full of optimistic, liberal - and probably gay - people enjoying life in a luscious city of avenues, boulevards, cafés, statues and uplifting art galleries.
What actually confronted me as I emerged from the station was a building site of Olympic proportions as far as the eye can see.
A huge and utterly featureless paved square is bordered by makeshift railings that would put Spennymoor to shame. Beyond it, on all sides, are cranes. Not the feathered kind, either. I could easily have coped with those. At least a dozen building cranes, thoughtfully of different colours, rear up like giant - er...cranes all along the horizon. At first sight, there doesn’t seem to be one completed building in view, except for the broken-down tenements to the east of the station.
In front of the station exit is a helpful row of ugly little concrete blocks for people to sit and cry on. I shambled over to one, sat on it and wondered why I had allowed myself to be talked into visiting what looked like a Teutonic version of Leeds.
Fleetingly, I wondered if Patricia had been right.
Patricia had been my travelling companion for part of my journey. We both boarded the train at Hilversum.
(For reasons best known to the God of Railways, international trains between Holland and Berlin start not in Amsterdam city but at Schiphol Airport. Adoptive Amsterdammers like me and Patricia have to change trains at Hilversum. In this way, I discovered that the name on the old valve-radio dials was actually a Dutch town. I even saw the broadcasting mast itself and celebrated with one of the nicest cups of coffee I had on my travels - from an Albert Hein supermarket; the Dutch equivalent of Asda.)
Patricia was a businesswoman of very strong opinions and intimate knowledge and love of this part of Holland. As we sped through the countryside, I took mischievous pleasure in interrupting the vital work she was doing on her laptop by asking her the names of villages and streams, or about the area’s history - or to help me spot windmills, of which there were worryingly few. (Eventually, we counted five.)
Spring had arrived in Holland like something being said. The rich, bright green of her fields, outlined with the darker, moodier green of hedges and everywhere the silver ribbons of drainage ditches glinting in the sunshine. The picket-fenced farms that looked like inhabitable flapjacks or liquorice allsorts, many of them with a couple of favoured sheep and a cow grazing sleepily in a small paddock.
It’s always good to make a journey with someone who knows and loves the road ahead. With Patricia’s help, I saw, for example, the two lineside cottages she always looked out for as she passed this way. One of them had a garden startlingly festooned with old railway signalling equipment. The other had a garden full of brightly-painted, life-size sculptured cows that quite took me by surprise in the picture-book sobriety of the countryside. They looked wonderful, and I said so.
I continued to happily disturb her concentration until the train passed over the wide, shimmering River IJssel and into the pretty little town of Deventer. I felt sad because I knew she would be getting off the train here, just before it crossed the border into Germany.
As she packed away her laptop, I told her how much I’d enjoyed seeing so much more of her country than just Amsterdam. It had been a first for me and I’d loved it. I told her how widely I’d smiled when I saw a graffito scrawled hugely along the entire length of a train: it had said ‘I'm Number One - so you will just have to try harder!‘ Something of a justifiable slogan for the whole country.
She leaned over in a deeply conspiratorial way and almost whispered…’I know why you love Holland’ she said. ‘It’s cosy, comfortable and friendly.’ She moved even closer. ‘Germany, on the other hand…..isn’t’
Although I was well-used to a certain level of Dutch ‘dislike’ for their German neighbours, I was genuinely surprised to hear it expressed, however wanly, by a woman like Patricia.
As she waved the train away, I was seriously lost in thought about the rights and wrongs of her attitude. I wondered if it was evidence of straightforwardly pernicious prejudice or whether Dutch people - or at least quite a few of them, judging from my experience - have long and unforgiving memories.
Or are the worst and most despicable of mankind’s self-inflicted horrors too dreadful to be forgiven, even if the will to forgive is there?
We had already passed through places with such wonderfully homely and Dutch names as Apeldoorn, Amersfoort and Weesp - little boating lakes and lots and lots of people on bicycles exploring the Dutch springtime - and now the train was calling at places with mysteriously Italianate sounding names - Hengelo and Almelo.
We passed through a deep forest which led, in turn, to a cutting. A cutting means rising ground; we were passing through Holland’s only real range of ‘hills’ - all of 20 feet or so high.
The forest faded away from the trackside, the farmhouses were suddenly a little bigger, and hills appeared in the distance for the first time since Amsterdam.
The train pulled into Bad Bentheim, which is a lot less pervy than it sounds. We had crossed the border somewhere in that cutting and we were in Germany. They changed the locomotive from a yellow Dutch one to a German red one.
Robinson’s German Journey had really begun….
There was still a long way to go to get across northern Germany and I was keen to see how it looked; how it ‘felt’. I tried to be a good tourist - looking with great interest out of the window at the passing fields, farms and villages and making notes in my little book.
But I remember very little about the countryside we were passing through, and made almost no notes at all, because of Hildegarde and Gunther, a presentably middle-aged and almost unnoticeably conventional couple who boarded the train at a place called Rheine.
They sat across the aisle from me and, fuelled by their very obvious and very recent ingestion of schnapps or schlitz, proceeded to show how upsettingly unconventional they actually were.
It started innocently enough. Holding hands led to kissing and cuddling and touching, all of which became more and more prolonged the nearer we got to Osnabrück. I began to wonder if lovemaking had been criminalised in Osnabrück and that Hildegarde and Gunther were milking every drop of pleasure from their final permissible moments of affection.
I was wrong though. By the time we’d reached Hannover, the snogging had become stroking and groping - there’s a lot more room on German railway carriage seats than there is on ours - and my fellow-passengers and I were being treated to an extraordinarily exuberant example of on-board pornography.
By the time we’d reached Wolfsburg, Hildegarde had unzipped Gunther’s flies. Her left hand was having a party in his underwear - a party that was interrupted only by the ticket inspector, to whom she offered their travel documents with her other hand.
I had dispensed with my English sensibilities miles back and, like everyone else, had decided that the view inside the carriage was much more interesting than that outside.
But the ticket inspector had broken their rhythm, as it were. As the train drew out of Stendal station, Hildegarde and Gunther disappeared into the toilet and were never seen again. At least, not by me...
It had been a long and unexpectedly ‘diverting’ journey but I’d made it. I’d recovered from the melancholy I’d felt at my first view of Berlin. I’d negotiated the metro and had arrived at my hotel.
The evening was warm and sunny and at my feet lay a city of legendary complexity. I couldn’t wait to go for a wander and find out what all the fuss was about….
After all - nicht alle, die bummeln, sind verloren.
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